Secret’s out! A recent survey found young Australians aged 15-29 years are not using condoms.

The study (2018 Debrief Study – CSRH, UNSW) showed that well over half of us aged 15-29 years (75%!) said that we had sex without a condom at least once during the past year. While this may sound shocking, as a young person myself, giving condoms a miss doesn’t surprise me at all.

Lots of us are on the contraceptive pill and some of my gay and bisexual male friends are on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), but my female friends haven’t even heard about it. When I asked my friends, why we aren’t always using condoms, most responded that as long as they’re protecting against unwanted pregnancy or HIV, they’re not concerned. It also concerned me that my friends didn’t seem to realise HIV is an STI (sexually transmitted infection).

It’s no surprise, we’re not only at a higher risk of picking up an STI, we’re also more likely to have an STI without knowing it. While HIV is an STI, when it comes to other STIs, it seems they’re off our radar. The survey also found that over 66% of the young respondents thought they were unlikely to contract an STI even though, more of us are having sex without condoms.

As someone who is in this age bracket and also works in sexual health, I think I get it. I can understand why we give condoms a miss and most of us still think we aren’t running any risk around picking up an STI, including HIV.

As young adults, we’re often told we’re risk takers, unwise, or irresponsible. When it comes to sex, I disagree we’re any of those labels. We’re a highly educated and passionate generation! We talk about sex a lot, we think through our decisions and most of us avoid harming our health or our lives when we understand the risks.

We don’t actively talk about STIs because we are scared, careless, risk-takers or reckless. The truth is, we don’t talk about STIs because we haven’t been educated about STIs.

By and large, our education system is silent on the subject. Sex ed in high school sucks. It does very little to prepare us for adult life, which includes sex and relationships. No one talks about how we can have the kind of sex we enjoy, in ways that we can still stay healthy. Encouraging us to practice abstinence (having no sex at all) is not an answer. Many of us feel uncomfortable to have conversations about sex and sexuality with our families or our friends. Loads of us feel like we have to hide who we are.

This combination of outdated attitudes towards sex along with no quality, empowering sexual health education reinforces the idea that conversations about sex including STIs just aren’t for us. Without these conversations and education about sexual health, it is any wonder young people have pretty low risk perceptions around contracting STIs?

Given the studies show more of us are choosing not to use condoms, my concern is my generation aren’t aware of other options for looking after our sexual health.

One of my friends told me she was choosing to have sex without condoms because she couldn’t afford to buy condoms. When she found out how to get free condoms, she quickly changed her mind about condomless sex, given the high risk of pregnancy and how STIs could affect her reproductive health. When she had the education that Sexual Health Clinics including Family Planning clinics across NSW will provide free condoms and lube whenever you ask for them, she quickly made the decision to protect her health and that of her partners.

An STI diagnosis is also highly stigmatising among young people. If you’re diagnosed with an STI, it’s going to be okay and you can do something about it. Looking after your sexual health is important and so is letting your sexual partners know they might also need to get tested.

If you want to talk to a someone who can support you or brainstorm some ideas how to tell your current or ex-partner, or friends-with-benefits, check out our Rypl campaign or download the Rypl App. The Play Safe website is a site packed with quality info about sexual health especially for young people.

Let’s take some new steps to change the culture about being young and knowledgeable about sex. There is no shame in talking about sexual health. It is important we normalise talking about sex and looking after our sexual health, especially talking about STIs and testing.  We also need to know that having an test for STIs does not include HIV, and you need to ask for this specifically.

Other tips and ideas to stay on top of our sexual health are:

  • Get tested with every new partner (and every three months if you have multiple partners e.g. three to five a month). Otherwise getting tested every six months is a good rule, even if you are in a relationship. STI tests are anonymous and free for anyone (if you go to a bulk-billed GP or sexual health clinic) you can find STI testing at any sexual health clinic in NSW or these Aboriginal community health services. The only way to prevent STIS is to use a condom.
  • Contraception options: Such as the pill, IUD, implant or diaphragm are methods to prevent pregnancy but not STIs. The emergency contraceptive pill will prevent pregnancy if taken shortly after you’ve had sex without contraception or if the condom broke.
  • Like the contraceptive pill, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a daily pill that protects people from contracting HIV.
  • If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV either because a condom broke or you didn’t use one, or you’ve had a needle stick injury, taking post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) within three days is a way to avoid HIV.

If you want to talk through any of these options, call us on (02) 9206 2177, 1800 245 677 (freecall) or email contact@positivelife.org.au

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